Springtime for Biden and Democrats

Summertime is coming; the “debate” season is near.  It will not taper off on until the primaries and party caucuses get underway.  What a dreary prospect!  Take heart, though, in the fact that, in this post-midterms world, with the Zeitgeist moving boldly and unashamedly to the left, some good could come of it.

Also, if Joe Biden is still anything like a frontrunner by the time the debates get underway, they could be useful for damage control as well.

Four years ago, when all the action was on the Republican side, the debates were hardly edifying. They did have some redeeming comedic value, however; they were low-grade goon shows that licensed liberal commentators to give their snarky sides free rein.  That could be fun to watch.

Some of those commentators had been practicing their moves since even before 2008.  They were amusing at first, just as it was amusing, years ago, to see Rachel Maddow take twenty minutes to make some obvious or asinine twenty second point.  But that gets old fast.  Thus, by the time Trump had vanquished each and every rival, the Republican debates were nothing more than pathetic.

This year, with Democrats going at it, the debates should be easier to bear for those of us who would like to see serious some politics in them.  But it won’t all be sweetness and light.  Trump will haunt the spectacles to come.  He has that effect; he makes everything worse.

But not to despair — with some twenty or more Democrats vying for their party’s nomination, nearly all of them running to the left of the dead center, there is reason to expect those debates to improve the national conversation and therefore, ultimately, the Democratic Party itself.

Bernie Sanders is sure to have something worthwhile to say, as will Elizabeth Warren; she will even have reasonably worked out policy positions to discuss.

And if she is not marginalized or edged out of the debates altogether, Tulsi Gabbart’s contribution could help to put the foreign policy consensus that has underwritten the wars and lesser military conflicts that the United States has waged, needlessly, since even before the end of World War II, in jeopardy.  That was when post-manifest destiny America, formerly just a hemispheric bully with colonial interests in the eastern and central Pacific, came into its own as a global hegemon.

Also, if Washington Governor Jay Inslee is able to make his views heard, struggles to combat climate change will come to the fore even more boldly than they would through the good offices of the Green New Deal alone.  That would be something to applaud as well.

Thank the 2016 Sanders campaign and the Occupy movements that preceded it for getting all this going, even as it became clear that the hopes raised by Barack Obama’s election were largely illusory.

Also thank the insurgents who ran, and sometimes won, in the 2018 midterms.

And thank Trump himself – or, rather, the “dialectical” character of the political scene his shenanigans have brought into being.  Trump did it despite his monumental ignorance, imbecility, ineptitude, and laziness; he did it just by being there.

“Too much light blinds us,” wrote Blaise Pascal (1623-1662); too much Trump “negates” the Trump phenomenon itself.

And so, for the first time since debates came to fill the nation’s TV screens every four years, they could be good for more than just the usual blather about winners and losers, and about the infernal “horserace.”  Since this year’s Kentucky Derby, the horserace metaphor has become more than usually apt.

Even so, the debates will, as always, bear little or no resemblance to the collective deliberations that the great democratic theorists of the past envisioned or to institutional arrangements designed to implement what contemporary political philosophers call “deliberative democracy.” Neither will they be the kinds of debates practiced in debating societies or moot courts.

They will have little, if anything, to do with determining the good for the political community as such. They will not even be concerned in non-trivial ways with the aggregation of either voters’ actual preferences or the “ideal” preferences that voters would have were they adequately informed, moderately self-interested, and reflective.

Real debates would engage the concerns of a democratic citizenry.  For the time being, this only happens in imaginary communities in which the people, the demos, rule.  There isn’t much of that going around these days in the real world; raging inequality in conjunction with non- or anti-democratic institutional arrangements militate against it.

In actually existing democracies, even at their best, the people only get to participate periodically in elections that offer tweedledum versus tweedledee choices; or, as in the United States, with Democrats and Republicans, choices between tweedledumb and tweedledumber.

Thus the debates that will take place as the impending election season unfolds will be debates in name and outer form only.   What they really are will be episodes in a nearly eighteen month long, democracy-themed sales campaign.

At first, office-seekers will seek to market themselves, often with the help of “special interests” that see some percentage for themselves in helping them out.

Then, once the two parties have settled on their nominees, they will put them on offer in much the way that commercial enterprises market their goods or financial institutions vie for customers.  The debates that follow at that stage will be part of that effort.

Being excluded at either stage is nowadays tantamount to a kiss of death.  This is especially true once the general election itself gets underway. Third parties in the United States have never had much chance to break out of the margins, but the debates make their plight even worse than it used to be.  Had Ralph Nader or Jill Stein been allowed to participate, the American political scene today would be very different from what it now is.

The same would be true had Sanders not run as a Democrat in 2016.  Had he declared himself an “independent,” as he had in previous elections, he would not have been in the debates and would then have been lucky to get two or three percent of the vote. Instead of being a contender now, he would be yesterday’s lunch.

By using the internet in what were then novel ways, his campaign in 2016, run under the aegis of the Democratic Party, altered the prevailing paradigm substantially for the better.   The campaign itself raised most of the money it needed through small contributions from multiple donors.  This time around, most Democratic candidates will feel compelled to follow Sanders’ lead, as did many of the insurgent Democrats in 2018.

This is among the reasons why the coming debate season is more likely than not to turn out comparatively well. Even with fewer candidates in the mix, there would be little debating in those debates; their formats militate against it.

But the proceedings will not be useless on this account; not unless the powers that be figure out ways to keep the ideas that at least a few of the candidates will advance from entering into the national conversation.

There is, of course,, some danger that the Democratic Party’s corporate and Wall Street donors and the pundits that serve them will use the struggle to defeat Trump to assure that the Democratic Party remains on their side in the class struggle.  This is, after all, what politics, even electoral politics, is ultimately about.

To that end, the first thing to do, from their perspective, would be to settle on a standard bearer they can trust to stay on course; a man or woman who will make the necessary cosmetic changes, while keeping the core of the status quo intact.

Enter Joe Biden. Corporate America’s and corporate media’s “moderate” of choice.


Surely, our political, economic, and media elites could do better than that.  With more than twenty alternatives to choose from, they could find a less preposterous character to advance their interests.

But they are Democrats, and Democrats never learn.  However good they may be at squandering opportunities for change, when it comes to change itself they are zeroes.

The problem with Biden is not just that he is the biggest dunce in the Democratic field.  It is that running him would be like running Hillary again, only worse.

This at a time when the “me too” movement has undone far more worthy figures – Al Franken, for example – for far less egregious “contour contact,” as Hugh Heffner used to call it.

And this at a time when the definition of insanity as making the same mistake over and over has practically become a cliché.

What could they be thinking?

In the debates that led to Obama’s nomination in 2008, only Biden and Clinton ran to his right; of the two, Biden was the more extreme.  Besides “experience,” whatever that means and for whatever it is worth, he and Clinton did have much in common.  Above all, they shared a penchant for getting things wrong.  They were also both lackluster Senators.

Biden’s record was worse than Clinton’s because he had been around the Senate longer, and therefore had more opportunities to do what feckless bunglers and doofusses do.  The two of them were on the same page ideologically, however; they were both neoliberals and liberal imperialists.

Biden, however, was worse. They both supported the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Clinton’s war mongering was almost benign in comparison, say, with Biden’s support for every rightward leaning ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia, and for rightwing dissidents in Russia and all the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic Sea to the southernmost regions of the USSR.

Clinton backed Israelis over Palestinians a hundred percent; Biden, a thousand percent.  AIPAC was fine with Hillary, but Biden was by far the better Zionist, and they knew it.

In the Biden worldview, the bad guys eat their own children; the good guys are practically angelic because their interests accord with geopolitical misconceptions dear to his heart.

To be sure, it was Clinton, not Biden, who broke Honduras and other Central American countries, and whose ineptitude during the Arab Spring continues to breed disasters that reverberate around the world.  These would include the refugee crisis that has changed the political complexion of Europe profoundly and for the worse.

But Biden had it in him to do all kinds of similarly stupid things; at one point, he even proposed dismembering Iraq.  Hillary has done more harm than he has, but this is because Obama, in his infinite wisdom, chose to empower her by installing her at Foggy Bottom, while all he did with Biden was kick him upstairs — to the largely ceremonial office of Vice President.

Thus she was able to grow into her role as the Queen of Chaos, while all he could do was get by under the several cloud he had created for himself.  The one involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill is, of course, the best known.

That was a long time ago, but it still smarts, and with the Supreme Court now dangerously close to turning back the clock all the way to the coat hanger – back alley bad old days, Biden may soon find himself with even more to answer for than anyone would have imagined not long ago.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom now on the liberal cable channels and in the quality press is that regardless of his past or present, Biden is, of all the Democrats currently running, the one most likely to defeat Trump.

Nobody can quite say why – but corporate pundits are not beyond suggesting that it is because, having grown up in Scranton PA and then going on to live in Wilmington DE, he has the common touch.   This is truly insane.  It is the very definition.

Corporate media, however, are positively fixated on the idea.

It is not too hard to see how in 2016, even good people, considering the alternative and susceptible to falling for Trump’s con about how capable he is at running things, could be talked into giving the man the keys to the Oval Office, notwithstanding his obvious shortcomings.

It is not as if Clintonites had been doing such a great job, after all, or that Hillary, in particular, was especially capable.  Anyone paying attention would know that just the opposite was the case.  There was an appetite for change, and electing Trump would at least mark a real break with the past.

Somehow, it didn’t seem to register with them that there was no way to try Trump out, no way, as it were, to go for a test drive.  Giving him the keys meant turning the direction of the country over to him for four long years, but nobody seemed to care.

But that was then; in 2016, Trump could seem to some like a breath of fresh air.  Anyone who still thinks that way three years later is a candidate for a straightjacket.

In 2016, it took a candidate as awful, and a campaign as ineptly run, as the one that Trump barely defeated, for a Democrat, running against him, to lose.  For a Democrat to lose again this time around, the party would have to field a candidate a whole lot worse than they did before.

Biden is worse, but not by that much. By now, this plain fact is seared into the public consciousness. The case against Trump has become so glaringly obvious that even a potted plant should be able to defeat him in a free and fair election.

So, yes, Biden would defeat him – not, however, for the reason we are constantly told, that stereotypical, long in the tooth white working class men will identify with a down to earth Scranton boy, but because Trump’s unfitness for the office he holds has become common knowledge throughout the land.

But why risk the future of the world on that, when so many better alternatives are at hand, and when it is plain that enthusiasts for a Biden presidency are few and far between?

The only reason Biden’s poll numbers are as good as they are is that an unjustified false belief about how Biden is more likely to succeed in sending Trump packing than any of the others candidates has been promoted so widely.

That is emphatically not self-evident; it is almost certainly not even true.

Do the party’s leaders and their media flacks think that it is true?

Do they consider the idea that Biden poses more danger to Trump than any of the others a “golden lie” in Plato’s sense, a falsehood useful, in this instance, for making sure that anti-Trump voters are mobilized actually to vote?

Or do they genuinely want Biden’s candidacy to prevail because they are that wedded to the status quo and fearful of their party’s left turn?

I would venture that the answer is all of the above, but mainly the third; that their support for Biden stems from fear of their party changing beyond recognition in ways that they and their corporate paymasters deeply oppose.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).